John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera for the Royal Opera House, introduces the ROH’s A Faustian Pack programme. Watch John Fulljames and sound artist Matthew Herbert talk about the project and view rehearsal photos from Luke Bedford’s upcoming opera Through His Teeth:
Ruth Padel recently joined the rehearsals for Bedford’s Through His Teeth, which she describes as a “Faust without the supernatural. The evil is all human. But there’s lots of it: demonic sex, demonic fraud, demonic psychological abuse.”
Read the full text on Ruth Padel’s blog.
Find out more about Through His Teeth on our dedicated blog.
Here is a collection of our interviews with composer Luke Bedford. Bedford talks about Through His Teeth, his stages of composing, the use of quartertones in his music, working with playwright David Harrower and gives insight into two scenes of his upcoming opera:
In February and August of 2013, theatre director Bijan Sheibani, playwright David Harrower and composer Luke Bedford had two workshops at the ROH, in which they were working on the libretto with actors.
Luke Bedford on the workshops:
It might seem strange to have an opera workshop where there are no singers or musicians present, but from the beginning of this project I was clear that getting the text right was crucial before I started writing any notes. Therefore the workshops we had on the piece involved a few days working with actors and trying out various ways of telling the story.
The first idea was to set it all in one flat, where R had two women installed/imprisoned. David had written a few scenes exploring this idea, hints of which you can see in the final version of the text. And while this scenario certainly had intensity, it soon became clear that clamping the story into just one location was too restrictive. Especially when R had forbidden the women to speak to each other. This kind of idea has been touched upon in opera before, but we felt it wasn’t right for the piece that we wanted to make. Also, seeing the actors on the stage told us the mood was simply too dark: too monochrome. So David and I went away and thought about how to take the elements we liked from the workshop but find a better structure for them. After some work, we ended up the framework of the final piece: to focus on just one woman’s story and have a series of snapshots of A and R’s (and her sister’s) relationship, intercut with A being interviewed after the events.
The second workshop was on something close to the final draft of the text. Hearing how the actors read the lines was really useful to me – partly as they confirmed many of my own ideas where the key dramatic moments are, as well as the pacing of the work. And sometimes they would read a line or two very differently to how I’d imagined it – and this was also useful, even if I rejected ‘their’ way in the end. In fact, this has haphazardly evolved into a technique that I now use when working with text. I try and imagine the opposite of how I’ve set some lines, to see whether it works better than my first draft. Often it doesn’t, but just now and then it throws up something wonderfully unexpected – and it ends up in the final piece. One example of this is in scene 12, when R appears at A’s flat and pressures her to leave with him. My first idea was to have very dramatic, crashy, wild music. But then I stepped back and tried to imagine the scene with almost nothing happening and I knew straight away that this was stronger. In the ensemble, there are just six pitched, extremely high notes from the violin, and underneath the whole scene is the distant, otherworldly sound of a thunder tube.
Find out more about Through His Teeth.
For the last few years, I’ve been working quite often with quartertones, and the most effective way I find of just practically hearing these notes is by having a second keyboard, so that one keyboard is tuned a quartertone below the other one. With a single keyboard you could obviously imagine what the quartertone would sound like, but I prefer to actually hear the physical sounds.
I got my second keyboard about a year ago. Up until that point I’d actually used a guitar and a banjo, tuning those down a quartertone – it was ok, but it wasn’t very effective.
You can of course use computers as well, but I don’t like doing this sort of creative composing on the computer. I feel that especially with most notation software it’s limiting, you end up writing more what works on the computer than actually what works on the instruments or on the voices.
So I thought it was important to get this second keyboard if I wanted to explore different tunings and different quartertones – I suppose if I worked on eighth tones or third tones I’d just have to keep getting more and more of them. But I think that at the moment quartertones are enough.
Find out more about Through His Teeth.
Luke Bedford on the instrumentation of Through His Teeth:
Through His Teeth is scored for eight instruments. It’s quite a small ensemble, but I tried to get as big a range of colours and sounds as I could out of that. So there are quite a few instruments that are capable of playing chords. There is a harp, there is an accordion, there’s various tuned percussions, and there’s violin, cello and bass. And against that there is also a clarinet and a trumpet. It’s a kind of small, mixed ensemble.
I tried also to balance it as much as I could, so I count the accordion as a sort of wind instrument. So there’s a clarinet, trumpet and accordion doing some wind-side of things, there are three strings, and then the harp and the percussion as tuned instruments.
Because of the quartertones, it had to be instruments that can play them better than others. Obviously for the harp, percussion and accordion, it’s not easy to get quartertones on, but for the other instruments, especially the strings and trumpet, it’s something that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
I decided that the singers were not going to be singing in quartertones – these are only heard from the ensemble. It’s partly a practical thing: some singers can obviously sing quartertones, but others find it very hard. And for a while I wondered whether if the note was strong enough in the ensemble, whether it would be ok to use it in the voice. But in the end I decided against it: partly just to keep things clear in my own head, but also for the singers – they’ve probably got enough to do anyways without worrying about the quartertones.
So it’s something that is happening from the music surrounding the characters really, it’s something in the air. They never go into that directly.
Composer Luke Bedford talks about working with Scottish playwright David Harrower and how they created the characters for their upcoming chamber opera Through His Teeth. The interview was recorded in Berlin in October 2013.
Luke Bedford on the story line of Through His Teeth:
I’ve been speaking to David Harrower, who has written the libretto for the new opera, about what kind of subject or theme we wanted to play with. David very often works with true stories as a starting point, either things from newspaper reports or something you have heard.
We’d been speaking to the Royal Opera House about doing this piece, and they asked whether we’d be interested in doing something on the subject of Faust – which initially we weren’t over the moon about. A sort of traditional telling of the Faust stories has been done so many times that we were quite unsure about what we could add to that. So we knew that we had to find our own take on that, a different way of doing it.
Read the full text on our seperate blog on Through His Teeth.
This is the interview with Luke Bedford that was mentioned in the introduction of this blog. It was conducted in June 2013, when Through His Teeth was still without a title. Harrower and Bedford already had very clear ideas about the storyline and the instrumentation, however.
Read our seperate blog on Through His Teeth.
In June 2013 we conducted a video interview with composer Luke Bedford about his upcoming chamber opera Through His Teeth. The opera was commissioned by the Royal Opera House and will première on 3 April 2014.
Intrigued by the composer’s words, we decided that we’d continue to document the work’s process of creation. Starting today we will provide you with regular updates regarding the development of Through His Teeth, ranging from the composing of the score and the writing of David Harrower’s libretto to the actual printing of the score and its production – who knows, we might even catch the postman when he finally delivers the score to Sian Edwards and the Royal Opera House.
What will the rehearsals at the ROH look like? Do you want to catch a sneak peek of the score before the première? Now’s your chance.
This post and all future posts in this series will be available on our page dedicated to Through His Teeth, which you can find here.